Monday, 23 June 2014




The latest report into poverty in the UK is one of the most authoritative and comprehensive pieces of detailed research in recent years. It demonstrates how recent UK government's economic policies have failed to do anything about tackling poverty. The report forms part of a steady series conducted by a variety of disparate organisations and groups who work to provide evidence of the hardships endured by millions of UK citizens. Put together they form a powerful indictment of government policies and the underlying Capitalist economic model that is based on the concept of creating unemployment and enriching a minority of individuals.

The latest study was conducted by the Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE) in the UK project which forms part of the impressive portfolio of work undertaken in the name of Peter Townshend, the distinguished academic and social policy expert, now deceased. Peter Townsend’s 1968/69 study of Poverty in the United Kingdom Survey represented a paradigm shift in poverty research which changed the way that poverty is understood and measured around the world.

The PSE project is the largest research project of its kind ever carried out in the UK.  The results provide the most detailed and comprehensive picture of poverty and exclusion in Britain and Northern Ireland in the 21st Century. According to the study, 33% of households endure below-par living standards – defined as going without three or more "basic necessities of life", such as being able to adequately feed and clothe themselves and their children, and to heat and insure their homes. In the early 1980s, the comparable figure was 14%.

The research shows that almost 18 million Britons live in inadequate housing conditions and that 12 million are too poor to take part in all the basic social activities – such as entertaining friends or attending all the family occasions they would wish to. It suggests that one in three people cannot afford to heat their homes properly, while 4 million adults and children are not able to eat healthily.

The evidence suggests that the gap between rich and poor is widening, there are more children living in poverty, and disabled people are more likely to live in poverty or be unemployed than non-disabled people.  Children from working class families are less likely to receive a further or higher education and black families are more likely to live in poor housing.

Recent attention to the under-performance of working class schoolchildren emphasises the pernicious impact of poverty. Gimmicks such as re-introducing free milk in Primary schools and suggestions by Ofsted's chief inspector that parents should be fined for not properly supporting their children's education are a distraction from the real problem. Poor, hungry children cannot learn especially when they live in households where parents are stressed, demoralised and feeling hopeless.

The result is that mental health problems affect three times as many children in social class V (manual and unskilled) compared with those in social class I (professional) according to the authoritative Social Trends government data. Further official evidence on social inequalities from the Office for National Statistics states that one in ten children in the United Kingdom suffers from a poverty related mental health problem. According to other research from UNICEF the UK is fourth from the bottom of a list of relative poverty among the nineteen richest nations and has children who are among the unhappiest in Europe. Troubled schoolchildren cannot learn in school.

The Labour government target was to reduce child poverty by a quarter by 2004, to halve it by 2010 and to abolish it by 2021. That aim has been consistently revised and recently abandoned as unattainable on the basis of current government economic policies. Meanwhile the gap between rich and poor has widened to such alarming levels that social scientists argue that these are the conditions in which social order begins to break down, creating a dysfunctional society where levels of crime, violence and mental health problems increase.

The Save the Children charity recently took existing Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) projections of a third more children in relative poverty by 2020 and factored in planned welfare cuts, a calculation which it says could add 325,000 children to the IFS figure. The current measure for calculating relative child poverty (defined as children living in households with incomes below 50 per cent of the national median) does not reveal anything about the depth of poverty. Welfare spending cuts will exacerbate child poverty levels. Child poverty is also caused by low pay, and two-thirds of poor children now live in working households.

In addition last week fresh evidence emerged in a report showing 3.5 million children are expected to be in absolute poverty in Britain in 2020 – almost five times as many as the target. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission said the absolute child poverty goal was "simply unattainable" and that this was on course to be the first decade since records began in 1961 not to see a fall in absolute child poverty. This is important given the cumulative psychological effects of persistent social exclusion which leads to despair, suicide, violence and a lack of motivation. So the latest spin from government about poverty being unrelated to poor school performance is more akin to Orwellian newspeak in which truth is inverted, the reality ignored and the powerful punish those who are the victims of injustice. The recent attempts by Ministers to muzzle the Trussel Trust which reported in May that nearly 1 million people used its Food Banks, and government attacks on Oxfam's austerity campaign are further evidence that this government wants to airbrush the poor from the news. They will not succeed.


Steven Walker